THE SECOND COMMANDMENTImagine for a moment that you're the parent of a teenage boy. He's going to take a class trip and you decide that for the two days he's away, he should be allowed to use one of your credit cards. You explain, "You're only to use it for meals, a souvenir, bus and subway tokens while you're there, and to pay for your room when you leave." The boy takes the trip and when he does, hands the card back to you.
You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice witchcraft, lie or deceive by His name, but call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks. (from The Small Catechism by Martin Luther)
But a few weeks later, you nearly have a heart attack when you open your credit card bill! Junior evidently took advantage of the WiFi in the hotel coffee shop. From his laptop, he'd used your credit card number to buy all sorts of stuff at ebay and while he was at it, to lose a lot of money playing several hours of online poker.
Of course, you're furious! When you confront your son though, he totally doesn't get it. "I thought you loved me," the boy keeps saying. "Of course, I love you," you try to explain. "But you still massively misused a privilege I gave you."
God gives us access to His "credit card." We're able to use His Name. God gives it to us, as Luther points out, so that we can:
- call upon Him in every trouble,
- pray to Him,
- praise Him for Who He is, and
- give thanks to Him for His blessings
Recently, the people of our congregation prayed for a person who was having surgery. The doctors said that there was a slim chance the person could survive the procedure. We all called out to God, both in our public and private prayers.
Of course, when we pray, as Christians we always submit to the will of God. God can say, "No." (As well as maybe, wait, and yes!) But to know that we can talk with the Creator of the universe when we call out to Him is an amazing privilege. As I write this, our friend is doing well and we continue to pray for healing. But I'm also now using God's Name to express my thankfulness!
It's a huge privilege to be able to use God's Name. Readers of this blog know that I regularly use God's Name here as a way of sharing the Good News of a God Who has demonstrated His love for us by going to a cross and rising from the dead, taking our punishment for sin, and opening up eternity to all who turn from sin and follow Christ! Being able to share all of this and call God by Name is a privilege, too. It's a way of praising God.
But whenever we use God's Name for any purpose other than the four ways Luther so insightfully identifies, based on the teaching of Scripture, we're taking His Name in vain, a term that means to speak the Name of God casually, idly, presumptuously, or uselessly. To take God's Name in vain is to engage in a kind of identity theft: We steal God's identity for our own purposes, rather than His.
There's a particularly horrible way to use God's Name, one of which I've been guilty...and more than just once...
After becoming a Christian as a young man in my twenties, for the first time in my life, I experienced that oneness with God that Christians enjoy. It gave me a confidence and a peace in my dealings with others that I'd never experienced before. When you know you're in sync with God, you're freed of trying to prove yourself to others and freed to become your best self.
Shortly after God began making these changes in my life, I scheduled a lunchtime meeting with an old friend. But as the scheduled time got closer, I found I simply didn't want to go. As the hours rolled by, I mentally waffled on whether I should honor my commitment or not. I couldn't decide if I should call this person up and cancel our meeting. Ultimately, I decided not to decide and just kept working at my desk through the hour we were supposed to meet.
A few hours later, my friend called me up and said, very kindly, "Sorry I missed you." I was in deep now and so, I feigned both forgetfulness and regret. "Oh, I'm sorry," I told him. "I completely forgot about it!"
And then I unconsciously added a few words that before I was a Christian, I never would have thought of using, words that seemed like a clever way to buttress the credibility of my tale of forgetfulness. "Swear to God," I lied. Only later did I realize what a terrible thing I had done and I asked for forgiveness.
Jesus once said that if we have to swear in order to convince people that we're telling the truth, especially if by our use of God's Name we enlist God as a co-conspirator in our lying, we don't have much credibility anyway. "Let your answer be Yes or No," Jesus says.